One hundred or more years ago, people didn’t think about identity as much as we do today. Life in America sparked the question for many when they wondered, “What is an American?” The advent of psychology in the twentieth century raised this matter for us to new levels of thought and study. Most of us know of someone having an “identity crisis.” Teenagers, according to the psychologists, wrestle with this issue as they transition from childhood to adulthood.

Simply put, our identities are amalgamations of various dimensions of our lives. Like a multi-faceted jewel, we are multi-faceted persons with a multi-faceted identity.  We are born with certain aspects of our identities, such as our gender, race, or certain physical characteristics. Some aspects of our identities are acquired by the stages of our lives and the roles we play: our age, our marital status, our hobbies, our likes and dislikes, our job. Each of these is one dimension that comprises the unique person that is each one of us.

“I am an Orthodox Christian,” is an identity statement. So are, “I am a teacher” and “I am a Chicago Cubs fan.” Each of these says something about who I am. They also point to how complex the question of identity is, especially for people today.

Our religious identities are ascribed to us. We might have been born into an Orthodox Christian family, but technically we still had to become Orthodox Christians ourselves. As the early Church understood, Christians were made, not born. We became Orthodox Christians through our entry into the Church, whether through baptism as an infant or through “conversion” later in life. The latter also reflects that our religious identities can change, from Lutheran to Orthodox, for example, and from Orthodox to Anglican.

A great deal of our identity is caught, not taught.  For example, I learned to be a fan of the Chicago Cubs baseball team by being around Cubs fans, watching the games on television, and going to games. Aspects of this identity needed to be taught, such as knowing how baseball is played, knowing the story of my team, its triumphs (of which there were few), its disappointments (of which there have been many!), its legendary players, and even the history of the owners and other parts. I own a jersey, a hoodie, a cap, and a few luggage tags to publicly demonstrate my loyalty. Combining what was caught with what was taught helped me form this aspect of my identity. You should notice that, in this case, I never became a professional baseball player or an expert on baseball. I just had to “know enough” and “do enough” to say that I am a Cubs fan.

On the other hand, my identity as a teacher was more involved but also involved elements that were taught and caught. I learned a great deal from books, from classes, and most importantly from teaching itself. I have shelves of books on teaching, read articles, and try to stay up to date with the field of education. Importantly, I also learned from other teachers, being around them, watching them, and talking with them. There are elements of my teaching identity that, upon reflection, I realize I picked up from other teachers over the years and trying to imitate what I thought were good practices and eliminate what I thought were poor practices. Even as I am continually working on my abilities as a teacher, I am a teacher.

As a third example, you should be able by now to see that an Orthodox Christian identity is both caught and taught. Being around Orthodox Christians in the family and parish, talking and listening to faithful people, watching them, participating in the same rituals and practices, such as the Liturgy, the Sacraments, Holy Week, observing fasts and holidays, and participating in parish life—from Feast days and soup kitchens to dance festivals—all shape an Orthodox identity. Wearing a cross, displaying an icon are public expressions of the identity that tell others, “I am an Orthodox Christian.” Learning about Orthodox Christianity, reading the Bible, the lives of saints, the writings of the past, going to Sunday school, attending a lecture, reading Orthodox literature also shape an Orthodox identity.

There is no “one-and-done” activity that can create an Orthodox identity. Forming an Orthodox identity begins in the family, and it takes a lifetime to develop, growing and changing with each new age and stage in life. The Orthodox identity we had as children, largely given to us by our parents, will need to “be owned” as we enter into adulthood. But even as adults, our identity will mature and take new forms and understandings as we proceed through adulthood, through marriage, parenting, jobs and careers, parish and community involvement. Our understanding of our Orthodox Christianity, and thus our identification with it, will change with each new experience in life.

Steps to shaping an Orthodox Christian Identity

Be involved with Orthodox Christian people. This is largely accomplished in our families and parishes. Family members are our first role models in what it is to be an Orthodox Christian. Families that live the faith in loving environments are more successful at transmitting and holding onto their religious identities better than others. Participation in the life of an Orthodox parish will necessarily put us in contact with other Orthodox Christians. Parishes that are warm and positive, that form good relationships with their members, caring for them throughout their lives, will do a better job than parishes that are cold and indifferent.

Be involved with Orthodox “information.” The stories and writings of the Church are more available than they’ve been in generations—from print to on-line, from the Bible to the latest publications from reputable authors and sources. Read them to children. Read them at home and let your children see you reading them. Get involved with learning your Orthodox faith. You don’t need to be an expert in Orthodox Christian theology; that’s what scholars are for. But you can “know enough” to talk about your faith, its content and meaning for your life.

Be involved with Orthodox practices. As your yia-yia might have said, “Go to church. Say your prayers. Observe the fast days and the feast days. Participate in the charitable and philanthropic work of your community.” It works.

Forming an Orthodox Christian identity is a life-long journey. St. Ignatius of Antioch, having lived his whole life as a Christian, as he approached the arena in Rome to lose his life to wild beasts said, “Now I am becoming a disciple.” Each stage of life, each experience of life adds new facets to the jewel that is our Orthodox Christian identity.

Deacon Anton Vrame is the Director of the Department of Religious Education for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and as everyone knows, a Chicago Cubs fan.